Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. And on rare occasions, you win by losing. For the Dallas Cowboys, that is what happened when they dropped the final game of the 2015 regular season to their arch-rivals from Washington 34-23. It would drop the season record to a dismal 4-12, but it would also ensure them of no worse than the fourth overall pick in the NFL draft.
The best scenario for the Cowboys going into the game was to lose but show some fight and have some players step up. The first half at least looked like it would go pretty much according to that script. Kellen Moore was struggling, unable to convert third downs and lost both an interception and a fumble in the first quarter. Dallas' offense put the defense in bad positions on the first four Washington possessions after taking the opening kickoff. Kirk Cousins got to start three of his first four drives inside Dallas territory, at the 49, 43, and 30 yard lines. The guys in burgundy would get touchdowns on all three of those drives. The Cowboys defense looked a step late on multiple plays. With a field goal on their first series of the second quarter, Washington jumped out to a 24-0 lead, and it looked like the Dallas players had already checked out for the season.
But on the ensuing possession, Dallas uncharacteristically went for it on fourth and two, and Jeff Heath got the first down. That seemed to light a fire under the Star, as Moore started looking much better. He was aided by Terrance Williams and Brice Butler, both of whom were playing hard all game, presaging what should be a very entertaining battle for the second wide receiver role in training camp. Williams had the best receiving game of his career. Jason Witten got in the act with the 60th touchdown of his illustrious career. The Cowboys followed that 80 drive up with one of 86 yards after the two minute warning, with Cole Beasley, who had a drop or two earlier, getting that TD reception. Beasley would add one more touchdown reception in the fourth quarter to give the coaches something more to evaluate about Moore and save the team from the embarrassing situation of finishing 2015 with Joseph Randle as the leading scorer for the team.
Darren McFadden was another player who had a good first half. He only had 35 yards, but it put him over 1,000 yards for the season and earned him a $300,000 bonus. He would not let up after halftime, either, getting a nifty 30 yard run on his first touch after the intermission. Despite that, he had a play that was an almost perfect example of the way the season has gone in Dallas when he fumbled the football just a yard short of the end zone, giving Washington the ball back instead of cutting the lead to two scores.
Part of the reason that Dallas was able to mount something of a comeback was that Washington put Colt McCoy in for Cousins after getting 24 points up. It was unquestionably the wise move, since Cousins had a nearly perfect QB rating at that point, and there were already several injuries to Washington players.
There were times the Cowboys looked good, and others when they looked very bad. While players like Williams and Butler made something of a case for their roles next season, others, like Brandon Carr and J.J. Wilcox, might have wished they looked better. There were ugly breakdowns, such as the fourth touchdown for Washington where Carr and Byron Jones were clearly not on the same page and one of them just blew the coverage.
Moore was once again a mixed bag. He put the team in a hole with his early turnovers, but then looked much better in the two long touchdown drives. There is still a problem with him delivering the ball just a tick late and it does at time looks like his height (or lack thereof) works against him. And he would squander a third scoring opportunity with an interception right at the goal line in the fourth quarter (although the play calling could be questioned for not at least giving McFadden a chance to score from inside the five). Still, he passed for three touchdowns, which is something no one has been able to do very often as the Dallas quarterback. Moore has not made a convincing case to remain with Dallas as a backup, but he may have shown just enough to at least get a chance to return for camp.
It does look like QB2 is Moore's ceiling. If the eventual replacement for Tony Romo is going to be in Oxnard, he is going to come through the draft. That is why the best outcome for the Cowboys was to lose this game while still putting up a good fight.
You can't say that the Cowboys played to lose, with a failed onsides kick attempt late in the game when they had cut the deficit to 11 points, but the loss was something they needed far more than a meaningless win. Now we can look forward to the draft knowing that they have some great ammunition to use to build for next season.